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News > Newsletter

The Best and Worst in Latin America in 2016

  • It's been a year of ups and down in Latin America.

    It's been a year of ups and down in Latin America. | Photo: Reuters / Goldman

Published 30 December 2016

teleSUR looks back at what stood out in Latin America in 2016.

The Best

1. Joaquin "El Chapo” Guzman Arrested Again in Mexico

Nearly six months after his second escape from a high-security prison, Joaquin Guzman Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo, was captured again after a fierce gun battle in his hometown and stronghold of Sinaloa in January.

Mexican authorities say they recaptured Guzman using information from interviews with witnesses and government officials, police reports, military video and also a meeting between the drug kingpin and U.S. actor Sean Penn in an encounter arranged by Mexican actress Kate del Castillo.

Penn recounted the meeting in a Rolling Stone article that generated questions over the relationship between del Castillo and El Chapo. However, authorities managed to put him on jail again after they were humiliated worldwide when Guzman’s escaped from Mexico’s most secure prison through an underground tunnel that led out of his cell through the floor of his shower.

The process of extraditing El Chapo to the United States has been opened and the infamous Mexican drug lord could be facing trial in the U.S. by early next year. His lawyers say their client rejects the extradition because if he is turned over to the U.S., he will never see his family again.

2. Barack Obama Pays Historic Visit to Cuba

On March 20, Air Force One landed in Havana with U.S. President Barack Obama on board to pay a historic visit to Cuba as he became the first sitting U.S. president to travel to the island nation in nearly 90 years.

During his two-day trip, Obama met his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro and representatives of the private sector. He also delivered a speech in an effort to establish a new relationship between the Cold War-era era foes.

The visit followed his December 2014 announcement that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba. So far, the two countries have reopened embassies in Washington and Havana and restored commercial air travel.

However, there are pending issues to solve, like the economic blockade Washington upholds against the island and the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison and return of the territory to Cuba. Obama will leave office soon and there's uncertainty about the future direction of U.S.-Cuba relations under the administration of President-elect Donald Trump. 

3. FARC and Colombian Government Sign Landmark Peace Deal in Cartagena

Using a pen made from a bullet, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and leftist FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londoño, better known by his alias Timoleon Jimenes or Timochenko, signed on a historic peace agreement on Sept. 26 ending a half-century armed conflict that killed a quarter of a million people, left 45,000 missing and displaced nearly 7 million.

Although the right-wing opposition tried to reverse the agreement and pushed a "No" campaign that contributed to the upset outcome that saw voters narrowly reject the original deal in a plebiscite by less than half a percentage point, the peace updated accords were finally passed by the Congress and have moved to the implementation phase. Colombia's Constitutional Court also passed a "fast track" rule that will accelerate the implementation of the landmark peace deal between the government and FARC guerrillas.

Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize as a honor for his contribution to the peace process undertaken alongside FARC rebels, who were not recognized by the Nobel committee. 

4. World Recognizes Work of Cuban Doctors in Fighting Ebola in Africa

At the beginning of the year the World Health Organization, or WHO, declared the end of a two-year Ebola epidemic that took more than 11,000 lives in West Africa and infected more than 22,000 people.

The UN health agency made the announcement after the outbreak ended in Liberia, which had joined Sierra Leone and Guinea, the epicenters of the outbreak, but in June it recognized that the virus was adequately controlled thanks in large part to the work of Cuban doctors in Africa.

The medical team, known as the Henry Reeve brigade, was created in 2005 by former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, according to official figures the government of havana sent 461 doctors and nurses to help fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa

In 2015 the team of nurses and doctors was considered for the Nobel Peace Prize.

5. Panama Papers Spur Fight Against Tax Havens

The Panama Papers, the trove of 11.5 million documents revealing how the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca helped politicians, business elites and others set up accounts in offshare tax havens, were leaked in April by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, ensnaring numerous high-level politicians and personalities in a sprawling tax evasion scandal.

Among the politicians implicated in Latin America were the Argentine President Mauricio Macri, Peruvian former presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori and Brazilian lawmaker Eduardo Cunha. The leaks linked dozens of influential politicians to apparent attempts to hide assets in shell companies and offshore tax havens, further entrenching the region in an ever-growing web of corruption.

Following the scandal, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa personally committed to lead the way in making the necessary changes to eliminate tax havens throughout the world, becoming the first head of state to do so.

Along with some notable economists and academics he signed a letter urging world leaders to eliminate tax havens and financial opacity protecting multinationals. Ecuador is also championing a fight for stricter international rules to clamp down on tax havens around the globe. Bolivia has also backed the campaign. 

The Worst 

1. WHO Declares International Emergency Over Spread of Zika Virus 

In February, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus and its suspected link to birth defects a public health emergency of global proportions. The  virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, was detected in Brazil and it moved quickly into more than 30 countries in Latin America.

Infection caused by the Zika virus results in mild or no symptoms in many cases. However, in severe cases it can cause fever, red eyes, joint pain, headache and rashes, while infection during pregnancy has been linked to the birth defect known as microcephaly and other brain malformations in babies.

The WHO estimates that in Brazil alone, 1.5 million people have been infected by Zika with over 3,500 cases of microcephaly reported between October 2015 and January 2016. Although is not longer considered an international threat, like all mosquito-borne diseases, Zika is seasonal and may repeatedly return to countries with the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry it.

2. Indigenous Leader Berta Caceres Murdered in Honduras 

Berta Caceres was shot dead in her home in March. Before her murder, she had reported 33 death threats as a result of her outspoken activism against unwanted corporate projects on Indigenous land and neoliberal government policies, but insufficient police protections proved unable to protect her. 

Caceres was a 45-year-old mother of four who gained prominence for leading the Indigenous Lenca people in a struggle against a hydroelectric dam project that would have flooded a massive region of native lands and cut off water supplies to her people.

Earlier this month, the U.N. Environment Programme, posthumously awarded her the Champions of the Earth Prize for her "action and inspiration" so that "her death would not be in vain."

Caceres, who at age 20 co-founded the Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, also known by its Spanish acronymn Copinh, was cited for her tireless grassroots struggle for the rights of marginalized and poverty-stricken Indigenous peoples in her native Honduras.

A report by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders says human rights defenders in Honduras face killings, constant threats, and criminalization, making the Central American country one of the most dangerous in the world for human rights activists.

3. Brazil's Dilma Rousseff Ousted in Parliamentary Coup 

Brazil's Congress removed former President Dilma Rousseff from office on Aug. 31 in an impeachment process widely condemned as a parliamentary coup, installing her former vice president, Michel Temer, as president for the rest of her term until the 2018 elections. Days after her removal, Rousseff, who suffered torture under the dictatorship, said that she had been sentenced to “a political death penalty."

While her rivals tried to paint the impeachment as a bid to root out government corruption, Rousseff was never accused of financial impropriety or personnal enrichment. Impeachment backers rarely made reference to the charges underlying the process — allegations that she used accounting tricks to cover up a budget shortfall. Meanwhile, more than half of the Senators who voted to impeach Rousseff were themselves facing legal proceedings over corruption charges.

The move put an end to 13 years of a progressive policies under the Workers' Party governments of Rousseff and her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. 

Other progressive governments in the region including Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and El Salvador also condemned the process, likening it to the military coups of the past that quashed left-wing advances and consolidated a neoliberal shift in the region. Since Rousseff's removal, unelected President Michel Temer has pushed a controversial austerity plan to limit public spending and institutionalize neoliberalism for the next two decades.

The constitutional ammendment was passed by the Senate even after the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston called it “inappropriate," criticizing the fact that the 20-year cap on public spending will affect the poorest people in the country with cuts to government expenditures on social programs, especially in health care and education.

4. Dozens Killed in Colombia Chapecoense Plane Crash

A total of 71 people, including 19 players of the Brazilian first division team Chapecoense, were killed on Nov. 28 when a plane crashed shortly before it was scheduled to land in Medellin, Colombia, where the soccer players were going to play a Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional of Medellin.

Only 6 people survived the crash, among them 3 players of the Brazilian club. To honor the victims of the tragic accident the South American Football Confederation, or CONMEBOL, awarded the 2016 Copa Sudamericana to the Brazilian club.

The tragedy shocked the soccer world and left Brazil in mourning. Tens of thousands of fans gathered outside the stadium of the club to honor those who tragically lost their lives. Media broadcasted emotional scenes of attendees crying and chanting football hymns.

Authorities are investigating if the crash was a result of negligence and why the aircraft was given permission to fly despite the apparent lack of safety procedures and sufficient fuel. Bolivia has arrested the CEO of LaMia, the airline involved in the crash.

5. Peru Spews Oil in Amazon in Spate of Spills

Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has given green light to a project run by transnationals and the state oil company PetroPeru to developed a massive drilling plan in an oil-rich area known as Block 64, believed to hold about 40 million barrels of oil in proven and probable reserves.

PetroPeru's environmental and safety record has been a cause for major criticism and concern as the company has had eight oil spills this year alone in the Amazon region where the Indigenous Achuar communities live.

Outraged members of these Indigenous tribes have been protesting to protect their ancestral lands and have mounted pressure on Kuczynski to respond to their demands and stop drilling, but the government has ignored the demonstrations. In their last protest, Indigenous activists made clear that they are willing to put their bodies on the line to protect the Amazon from destructive oil drilling.

Kuczynski, a former Wall Street banker, has presented a neoliberal policy agenda with respect to the country's energy resources that includes what he calls a bid to “untangle” stalled investment projects from bureaucratic red tape.

Protesters have said they have noticed a dramatic increase in the number of dead fish in the river following this year's spills and that the impact is particularly noticeable when the rivers swell with rain.

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